Making the Desert Bloom, But for How Long?

<p>Mike Sabel takes an in-depth look at the future of Las Vegas, its enormous growth, and what happens when the water runs out.</p>
April 2, 2007, 8am PDT | tnac
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"Dean Baker's cowboy hat looks suspiciously clean. The 66-year-old sun-worn Nevada rancher usually wears a dusty cap, but today he's got on a pristine white Stetson, the same one he wore for a French news crew. With their cameras rolling, Baker jumped onto a horse and galloped into the sunset. 'They love the whole ‘wild west' thing over there,' he says. Baker can dress the part, but he's no yokel. He and his three sons, all college-educated, are among the most successful independent ranchers in the state. In sparsely populated White Pine County, nearly 250 miles from Las Vegas along the Utah/Nevada border, cattle and crop sales earn them about $2 million a year. According to Baker, they could do even better. He points to his cows grazing in lush meadows, irrigated with well water from the ground below. The meadows stand in stark contrast to the scrubby, flat desert plains just beyond. 'If there was enough water,' he says, 'there could be green fields across this valley.'"

"But there isn't enough water. Las Vegas is the fastest-growing metro area in the country, adding 70,000 residents a year. It is also the driest, receiving about four inches of rainfall annually. If a handful of Las Vegas officials push through an aggressive plan this year to tap aquifers deep below White Pine County, ranches like Baker's could literally dry up and blow away. In 2003, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) announced a plan that its director, Patricia Mulroy, once scoffed at: pump 58 billion gallons of water from aquifers in the rural north (enough to supply 600,000 Las Vegas households for a year). The multi-billion-dollar project would be the largest farms-to-city groundwater transfer in the country's history, and the controversy surrounding it has pitted ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists against powerful politicians, business interests, and developers. If SNWA gets more access to water, according to Mulroy, Las Vegas will become part of the burgeoning 'New Urban West.' If the agency gets nothing - and doesn't find additional water - Las Vegas will run dry by around 2015."

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Published on Friday, March 30, 2007 in The Next American City
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